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Conservative leader targets Specter

Senator says opponents misconstrued his remarks on abortion


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The head of a leading conservative group said Sunday that Sen. Arlen Specter "is a big-time problem" and that his quest to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee "must be derailed."

The comments from James Dobson, founder of the nonprofit Christian organization Focus on the Family, came four days after the moderate Republican from Pennsylvania told reporters that any Supreme Court nominee intent on overturning Roe v. Wade probably would not win Senate approval.

"When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, who'd overturn Roe versus Wade, I think that is unlikely," Specter said Wednesday, in the wake of President Bush's re-election. "And I have said that bluntly during the course of the campaign, that Roe versus Wade was inviolate."

That comment sparked an avalanche of criticism from Christian conservatives who supported Bush's campaign. But Specter said Sunday that his remark was misconstrued and argued the uproar was fueled by people opposed to his "independence."

Specter is in line for the Judiciary Committee chairmanship. The chairman has broad powers to advance or hold up a president's judicial nominees.

"Senator Specter is a big-time problem for us," Dobson said on ABC's "This Week." He said Specter had made "one of the most foolish and ill-considered comments that a politician has made in a long time."

Dobson added, "There are many, many members of that committee that are more qualified and less of a problem than Senator Specter."

The issue is critical because it appears likely the high court will have at least one opening, and perhaps more, during the next four years.

Bush has said he expects to see as many as four openings.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist is ailing, and several other justices may leave the bench. Justice John Paul Stevens is 84.

Abortion-rights supporters fear that Bush could appoint justices who would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which gave women the right to abortion.

Bush has said he would not apply a "litmus test" for nominees, but Democrats point out that the judicial nominees during his first term were staunch conservatives opposed to abortion rights.

During Bush's first term, Democrats blocked 10 of his nominees to U.S. Appeals Courts, the nation's second-highest courts, The Associated Press reported. The Senate confirmed 203 of Bush's court appointments, according to the AP.

Dobson said he was also soured on Specter by the senator's support for embryonic stem cell research and his opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of conservative Robert Bork in 1987.

Dobson said of Specter, "He is a problem, and he must be derailed."

But Specter said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that his problem with Dobson and others began when it was reported that he had "warned the president, which is not so."

Specter said he has supported all of Bush's nominees, as well as Rehnquist, who has opposed Roe v. Wade, and that he led the fight to confirm justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative.

"So my record is pretty plain, that, although I am pro-choice, I have supported many pro-life nominees," Specter said.

He added that his comments were simply an acknowledgment that 60 votes are needed to end debate in the Senate and confirm a nominee.

"But with 55 Republicans, you aren't at the magic number of 60, so you have to anticipate problems with the Democrats, as we had a lot of them in the past Congress."

Specter, the only pro-abortion-rights Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said his opponents are the same people who tried to defeat him in the primary.

"They do not like my independence," he said.

Asked about his stance on embryonic stem cell research, opposed by many Christians who believe that life begins at conception, Specter -- who is Jewish -- said, "I believe that stem-cell research has enormous hope for the future. But I would point out that I'm joined by Senator [Orrin] Hatch, a noted conservative. I'm joined by many conservative colleagues on the Republican side of the Senate; I'm joined by Mrs. Nancy Reagan and by the vast majority of the American people."

He added, "If these embryonic stem cells could be used to produce life, I would never want to have tests on them. And in my capacity as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, I took the lead in having an appropriation of $1 million for embryo adoption.

"But you have 400,000 of them. They're either going to be used to save lives, or they're going to be thrown away. So that I think my position is pre-eminently reasonable."

Bork, a former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge, said on "Fox News Sunday" that Specter's prediction about possible Democratic reaction to a Supreme Court nominee who opposes abortion rights may not hold up.

"I don't know if [the Democrats] can pull a filibuster on a Supreme Court nominee," Bork said. "That would be very unpopular, I think, with the American people. I think they would be in trouble."

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, told Fox that the Senate must re-evaluate its role, given last week's election results.

"I think the Senate, in its new majority, really needs to look and evaluate what they want to do," he said. "And for any one person to stake out and say we're not going to do this or not going to do that, I think is just wrong."

Bush campaign adviser Karl Rove, credited with orchestrating Bush's re-election partly by emphasizing his conservative stances on social issues, told Fox that Specter is "entitled to his opinions."

Asked whether he was satisfied with Specter's explanation, Rove said, "Well, it was pretty straightforward and pretty plain. He told the president, 'I will make certain your nominees receive a hearing, I'll make certain that they receive a vote, and the appellate nominees will be brought to the floor.'"



Copyright 2004 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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